Sensorineural hearing loss

What is Sensorineural hearing loss?

Think you suffer from Sensorineural hearing loss?

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Imagine, for a moment, never being able to hear your children or partner laugh again. 

Imagine the feeling of loss and isolation this might bring to your life and the impact it might have on things you take for granted every day. Unfortunately, that is the painful reality facing more and more people all over the world because of something known as sensorineural hearing loss. 

It can happen very suddenly, in some cases as quickly as overnight, or be something that creeps up on you more gradually during your life, but leading audiologists are now fighting for sensorineural hearing loss to be recognised as a medical emergency by NHS staff and the wider public. 

Figures released by Hearing Link, a UK charity specialising in deafness and communication disorders claim that as many as 11 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss, making it the second most common form of disability in the country.

This isn’t just an British problem. Figures released by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) in the United States claim that as many as one in eight US citizens over the age of 12 have some form of hearing loss in both ears, and 90% suffer with sensorineural hearing loss. While in Europe it affects around 34 million people. There is no known medication on the market to treat the problem, and it is a growing issue in all parts of the world. 

Sensorineural hearing loss breaks down into two areas. The first is sensory loss involving the inner ear, where damage has occurred to the cells and nerve pathways that lead from the inner ear to your brain. And the second is damage to the hearing nerve itself, which is why in the past it was sometimes known as ‘nerve deafness’. Why does it happen? Well, again that comes down to two things. The first is that people are born with it, so they have congenital sensorineural hearing loss. The second is that they develop it during their lifetime, and it can be caused by everything from exposure to loud noises to tumours, meningitis and other serious medical conditions. 

Here is our breakdown of everything you need to know about the condition.

How do you spot sensorineural hearing loss? 

The symptoms of this condition vary depending on when the problem strikes. In babies and young children, it can be much harder to spot. But you should look out for them failing to respond to your voice, or the child not making babbling noises as they continue their development. It may also, as they get older, start to affect their ability to speak because they are not hearing words and sounds properly, and the condition can also affect balance. In adults and older people, it can also be tricky to notice. Many people simply put it down to growing old, but if you have noticed diminished hearing after having the flu or illnesses such as lupus or even leukaemia, it could be that you have suffered sensorineural hearing loss and should get yourself to a doctor so they can examine you further. Doctors will conduct a physical examination of the ear itself and may put you through a series of hearing tests and scans to examine your hearing pathways to make sure they are working as they should. 

If you have concerns, you can sign up for a free appointment with an audiologist here.

How is sensorineural hearing loss treated? 

Most sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and, as previously mentioned, there is currently no medication to fix this condition. But that does not mean there is nothing that can be done to address your diminished hearing. The most common way of addressing the problem and improving your hearing is with hearing aids or cochlear implants. Hearing aids have developed massively since the huge devices that used to sit on your ear. Like every piece of technology in 2019, they are much smaller and less obtrusive than they once were and consist of a very small microphone to pick up sounds and a small speaker or amplifier to boost the sound level and send that sound to the ear. 

While hearing aids are a good choice for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, for the more serious cases they are not always guaranteed to help. With more serious sensorineural hearing loss, the sound is distorted to such a degree that although hearing aids can make the sound louder, they do not make the sound clearer and therefore, the person still struggles to hear. People with severe to profound hearing loss may require a cochlear implant. This is an electronic device that stimulates nerve fibres that may have been damaged and includes a receiver that is put under the skin during surgery and an external processor that sits somewhere behind the ear. 

What is sudden sensorineural hearing loss? 

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is something that can and does happen overnight or in the space of a few hours. It should be treated as a medical emergency because it can point to a more serious underlying health problem. Around 50% of patients who lose their hearing suddenly recover fully, often by taking corticosteroids or some form of anti-viral medication. 

Why does it affect children so frequently? 

If you have been fortunate to parent a child, you will know that one of the very first tests that is done when the doctors come to check on the baby is their hearing. And this is because there is always a concern that a new baby may have developed some form of sensorineural hearing loss while in the womb. Improved maternity care has led to a dramatic drop in the number of cases reported in developed countries, but the problem is still on the rise in countries without sophisticated medical care. If a pregnant mother-to-be is exposed to either rubella or German measles, this can impact on the foetus and lead to hearing loss at birth. A lot of work is being done in health education to improve knowledge of the problem and a number of countries are now offering a vaccine to ensure mothers do not unwittingly pass on a disease to their unborn baby. Although all babies born in hospital will have their hearing checked in the first 24hrs of their lives, there are some children who will not be tested. If you feel that your child is not babbling or engaging as you would expect them to or indeed they are struggling with their speech a little later in life, then do contact an audiologist – many offer free appointments or visit your GP and ask for help. 

What does the future hold? 

The search for a medication that could restore hearing goes on. In the last few months researchers at the University College London Ear Institute began a trial for a new drug that they are hopeful could provide that miracle cure for the millions of people who either live with hearing loss currently or rely on hearing aids and cochlear implants every day. The drug passed phase one of testing in the summer of 2018 and has been shown to be safe – it is deployed via an injection through the ear drum. It will now proceed into phase 2. In the meantime, the millions of people with some form of sensorineural hearing loss will have to wait. If you think it could be a problem you are suffering with, don’t hesitate to seek help.

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